Thursday, June 9, 2016

Life of the Law

Image result for "Life of the Law"The Law and Society Association meeting this past weekend in New Orleans had a richer legal history crop than ever, thanks in part to the Law & History CRN and its 15 sponsored panels. Something else made this conference especially good: the Life of the Law. I haven't seen anything like it at any other conference. The Life of the Law is a podcast run by a group of NPR-trained investigative journalists, editors, and producers. Their work is characterized by the intellectual curiosity and thoughtfulness that is the hallmark of all your favorite NPR radio shows.  It is about the lived experience of law, and its makers look to us--scholars!--for their stories. The LSA is a sponsor. The thing to realize is that Life of the Law offers unusual opportunities for law-and-society scholars, but also for legal historians who may not regularly attend the LSA. I went to a couple of the group's events at the LSA. Here are the highlights (after the jump):

1. "Live Law" show: Every year for the past few, there has been a show called "Live Law" one evening during the LSA conference. You buy tickets when you register for the LSA. Think the Moth Radio Hour for law! I first discovered it last year in Seattle, when I was part of it. The theme then was "promises," and a group of us scholars along with several local story-tellers told stories in a local theater. For the scholars, we had to connect "promises" to our research or teaching experiences. I told a story about finding the grave of a colonial lawyer I was studying--one P. D. Patel--in a Parsi cemetery in Myanmar/ Burma. Malcolm Feeley (Berkeley) told a story about a prison visit. This year in New Orleans, the show was at the conference hotel and the storytellers were exclusively scholars. Hosted by Osagie Obasogie (UC-Hastings), it featured (among others): Kitty Calavita (UC Irvine) on a prison interview, Bronwen Morgan (UNSW) on "startup speak," Lynnette Chua (NUS) on meeting an LGBT activist in Myanmar, Laura Hatcher (SE Missouri State) on farmers' connection with land through their family cemeteries, Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve (Temple) on her early role in a criminal trial, Laura Beth Nielsen (ABF/Northwestern) on the physical search methods at her son's school, Bernadette Atuahene (ABF/Chicago Kent College of Law) on her work with Detroit squatters, and Tom Tyler (Yale) and Michael McCann (U. of Washington) on their experiences in student and labor movements respectively. This year, none of the storytellers were legal historians, but hopefully in future years there will be more. Although we usually think of our research as document-based, we have plenty of stories, too. The show creates an unusual opportunity to tell and hear stories that are very personal, and that often reveal the hidden engines behind our research, teaching, and passion for what we do. An audio recording is usually posted on the website later.

2. "Life of the Law" panel & podcasts: I also attended a session hosted by the people behind Life of the Law. This panel was about blurring the lines between scholarship and journalism, and served as an introduction to the podcast team. The team welcomes pitch ideas not only on the lived experience of law in America, but also in other parts of the world. The aim is to present a story, which is more than just an idea. It is good to think of a podcast like a play--with acts and scenes, involving different episodes and contacts (scholars or others) for each. One nice model for legal historians could be to pitch a story that has legal historical components along with "chapters" from our own time. That said, Life of the Law has done exclusively historical podcasts, too. An incredibly moving and popular one is the recent podcast, "Sterilized," featuring two elderly survivors of the mid-century forced sterilizations of institutionalized people across the US. I assigned this in my undergrad "Medico-Legal History" course. It made a real impression on my students. This episode got such a response that the podcast team put together a related bonus episode: a conversation about eugenics in 20th-c. US history with a group of scholars working in the area.

It's rare for legal historians to have this kind of chance to work with podcast journalists and to communicate our work to a much larger audience. So let the legal history pitches start rolling in!

Follow the action on Twitter @TheLifeoftheLaw and #LIVELAW